On Writing (About Sports) Well
I hunger for good writers to read and teach me because I live in constant fear of my next good sentence being my last. For some reason, the prescription for this paranoia rarely included any how-to books on writing. But neglecting William Zinsser's classic On Writing Well until this year? That was unforgivable. I’ve been savoring it during those rare quiet moments for a couple of months. Zinsser, an accomplished writer and college professor, offers humorous, straightforward advice that’s applicable to writers of all skill levels on just about every genre of writing. It’s the rare instructional book that’s helpful and contains a heartbeat.
Since I’m enjoying On Writing Well so much, I was tickled when I discovered Zinsser wrote a baseball book, Spring Training: The Unique Story of Baseball’s Annual Season of Renewal. I was elated when I found a used copy at the Golden Nugget flea market in Lambertville, NJ. The Westminster Township Free Library’s loss was my gain.
Spring Training (originally published in 1989), one of Zinsser’s eighteen books, is about the annual, month-long preface to the baseball season, when teams report to Florida or Arizona to prepare for the 162-game slog. Zinsser’s intent wasn't to cover a team’s daily grind, but spring training’s purpose for players and coaches. Zinsser chose the Pittsburgh Pirates for a few reasons. The Pirates played in the National League (his preference), had a long history with their fan base, and boasted a steady relationship with its host city: Bradenton, FL, where the team still trains. The last factor allowed Zinsser to explore “that once-a-year relationship between a major league team and its wintertime town.”
Though Zinsser is a lifelong sports fan, he had no sports reporting experience before Spring Training. “Strictly, I had no credentials; any of the men I approached with my notebook—managers, coaches, players, umpires, scouts—could have asked, ‘What else have you written about baseball?’ ” he writes in On Writing Well. “But nobody did. They didn’t ask because I had another kind of credential: sincerity.” It shows on every page, but Zinsser has a striking advantage. The beat writers are so governed by deadline-driven necessity—What players are getting cut? Is the starting rotation set? How does the new free agent look?—that they have little time to ask philosophical questions.
Zinsser does, receiving eloquent insight on how the employees of a professional sports team perform their jobs. Manager Jim Leyland runs his camp like a school. “I gear my camp for the rawest rookie,” he says. “We start from scratch and teach all the basic fundamentals, even though we’ve got quite a few players who have had major league experience, because one thing every organization takes pride in is, you don’t want a player to go somewhere and say, ‘I’ve never heard that before.’ ” Pitching coach Ray Miller, then working with a young pitching staff, says his job is “to try to mentally age a young body so that it can perform under pressure.” Spring training is so tough, he adds, because players will not make the team. It’s not like other jobs, says Miller: “When you fire a baseball player you’re firing a dream.” The players Zinsser finds take spring training seriously. Sid Bream, the lanky first baseman, uses it to “work on things I failed to do the year before.” In 1988, it was finding a steady swing so he wouldn’t have to make in-season adjustments.
Zinsser goes beyond the team rosters. He talks to the couple who runs the Pirates’ ticket office. Bev Waterman cheerfully deals with a constant stream of customers, either on the phone or face-to-face. Her secret? “I worked for the post office for twenty years.” Kids have learned to position themselves at Superior Automotive Cleaning to grab foul balls. Owner James Burke Jr. doesn’t mind. “We just peacefully co-exist,” he tells Zinsser. “Kids and baseball go together.” Zinsser talks to umpires in their dressing room; he finds a scout in the stands and watches him work. There’s an observational ease to Zinsser’s reporting and writing. He asks good questions, lets his subjects talk, and stays out of the way.
Unencumbered by George F. Will-like observations about the game’s mythology or how baseball resembles life, Zinsser indulges his curiosity and takes rewarding diversions. He asks Barry Bonds, then a human being, if his ball-playing father Bobby was his boyhood idol. “My father to me was my father,” Bonds says. “He was going to work.” As Zinsser interviews special instructor Bill Virdon, a chatty retired couple interrupts them. “Now I have something to ask of you,” Virdon finally says to the man. “I have to ask you to go back behind that railing.” Zinsser turns a visit to see part-time Bradenton resident Edd Roush, then the oldest living member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, into a wry look at Roush's appeal to autograph collectors. “You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff people send,” Roush’s daughter Mary tells Zinsser. “Last week the mailman brought a big box, and we got it unpacked and it was the slat of a seat from some stadium in New Jersey that got torn down.”
In On Writing Well, Zinsser reveals that good writers keep themselves interested: “If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write.” Spring Training is a wonderful example of that advice, and proof that Zinsser should not be viewed as just a master instructor. He is a master of his craft, one who was gracious enough to share his secrets.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.